How Military Recruiting Works

Updated: September 25, 2020
In this Article

    Are you interested in talking to a recruiter about joining the military but not sure how it works?

    There is a common worry for people who have never been in a military recruiting office before that the moment they start talking to someone about possibly joining the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, or Space Force, they will be on the receiving end of high-pressure sales tactics and that anything they do within the context of speaking to a recruiter could obligate them for things they do not want.

    How Military Recruitment Works But what is the reality?

    The fact is, in spite of cliches and stereotypes from the past, today’s military recruiters are highly trained, have ethics which must be followed, and in many cases these professionals view themselves more as career counselors than salespeople.

    It’s helpful for anyone who has never spoken to a recruiter before to remember that no branch of the military can accept all applicants. Recruiting is every bit a screening process for both applicant and recruiter.

    How Military Recruiting Works: The Basics

    Military recruiters are made, not born. Most recruiters are themselves recruited or volunteer to retrain out of other military careers. All military members who become recruiters must attend an intensive technical training course. Not all succeed in passing these courses, making the career field stronger through a process of weeding out.

    Once graduating from the training, these individuals are assigned where the military feels they are most needed and they begin learning their new community and how to find the best candidates there.

    A military recruiter’s office in the 21st century isn’t just a brick-and-mortar location–the official websites for Army Recruiting and the equivalents for other branches of service normally feature a form or other contact method you can use to ask questions or get more information online.

    Recruiters perform a variety of duties in service of filling the ranks–they work with local high schools, operate or advise Junior ROTC programs, do community service events, drive their clients to military entrance processing stations, and even create or maintain physical fitness programs to help people get ready for boot camp.

    How Military Recruiting Works When You Make An Appointment

    If you are reading this, chances are good that you are a potential new recruit or the parent of one. What you really want from this article (in that context) is likely what to expect when starting the conversation about joining the military. When does the applicant become fully committed to military service? What am I expected to do or commit to when making that first appointment?

    Here’s the good news. Unless you sign a piece of paper that acts as a legally binding contract to join the United States Military, you are in no way obligated to do anything at all except what you came to the recruiter’s office to do–talk.

    And even if you DO sign on the dotted line, until you have graduated from basic training, there are ways to leave the military penalty-free if you decide it’s not for you.

    So keep in mind that there is a misconception about when and for how long you are committed to the military. Generally speaking you still have the option to back out without consequence as long as you have not graduated basic training. But ask the recruiter about the length of your military commitment, what is required, and what you are legally obliged to do once you sign up.

    A Word About Entry-Level Separation

    Parents and recruits alike are usually fairly uninformed about what the military calls “entry level separation.” This is something that can happen up to 180 days after entering military service.

    These separations are basically neutral, not “dishonorable” but not an honorable discharge–it basically signifies that things “didn’t work out” for whatever reason and is not punitive. But entry level separations are not easy and it takes time to “develop” these separations. But the idea that once you have gotten to boot camp, your fate is sealed?

    That is NOT true. However, those who join the military and receive bonuses or other extra pay may be required to repay any funds already given to the recruit.

    Those who get entry level separations are generally not considered veterans and are generally not eligible for veteran benefits. It’s basically in most cases as if the recruit never joined up in the first place.

    Military rules and regulations in this (as with all other) areas are subject to change based on legislation or other issues. Be sure to double check with the recruiter about entry level separation issues and options if you need to know more–and it’s best that you ask in any case to make a fully informed decision.

    Signatures May Be Required…BUT….

    Don’t be afraid to sign paperwork that is required at later stages of the recruiting process. One such signature is required often before taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery or ASVAB–signing that document (read it carefully first) does not obligate you to military service. But it is required for you to take the test if it is presented to you.

    How To Navigate The Recruiting Process

    It’s important to have peace of mind when talking to your recruiter–even without the worries about anything mentioned above, you will still forget to ask a crucial question or two in the first stages–being more relaxed and ready to talk will help you get the information you need. This is why most “how to talk to a recruiter” advice includes bringing a friend or parent with you to the first meeting or two.

    Learn The ASVAB

    Before you even talk to someone at the local office, it’s a very good idea to get as familiar as possible with the ASVAB. There are study guides, sample tests, and other resources online that will help prepare you to take that test. No, you won’t be asked to take the ASVAB on your first visit, but if you already know you have strengths in certain tested areas, you will have more confidence about your military career choices and know more about what to ask about the options open to you.

    Enlistment Options

    You may already know what you want to do–but not all military jobs may be available at the time you sign up. That is why you should be sure to ask your recruiter about options that can help match the timing of your basic training with the availability of the job you want. The Delayed Enlistment Program is one such tool–ask your recruiter about delayed enlistment in order to obtain the job you really want.


    Some people who join are eligible to come in at a higher rank due to education, training, or experience. And some others are eligible to enter the military with a signing bonus for agreeing to take a job in an understaffed career field.

    Be sure to ask the recruiter which programs are currently open in this department and lay all your education, experience, extra curricular activities (such as Civil Air Patrol, Eagle Scout, JROTC, etc.) to see if any qualify you to come in at a higher rank than “slick sleeve” junior troops in the rank of E-1. You won’t enter as a Sergeant, but you will get a bit of extra pay and other advantages.

    Ask The Recruiter For Everything In Writing

    Yes, you want to get all promises and offers in writing. The recruiter will not be surprised by this. It is not wrong or bad form to ask, you’re potentially making a legally binding commitment if you choose to do so–the least the recruiter can do for you is to put it all down on paper for you to see as a record of what is offered.

    What If Your Job Isn’t Available?

    There are several options to consider if the Army doesn’t have the job you want. What does the Air Force or the Navy offer? Does the Marine Corps or the Coast Guard have the career you seek?

    Military recruiters often use a catchphrase amongst themselves; “First contact, first contract” which basically refers to a truism that a lot of people wind up enlisting in the first recruiting office they encounter or the first branch of military service they encounter. But you DO NOT have to live up to that cliche.

    It’s perfectly acceptable to talk to other branches of service–don’t let a recruiter discourage you from doing so and pay no attention if someone is actually unprofessional enough to try to dissuade you from doing so. It is your right to make a fully informed decision.

    The previously mentioned Delayed Entrance Program is one resource you can explore to try to land your dream military job, talking to the other branches of service is another, but may also wish to consider a career that DOES have openings that is similar to your original choices. This isn’t always practical or useful, but when it IS, you may find alternatives you never gave a second thought to.

    When You Think You Might Be Ready To Commit

    One aspect of military recruiting some don’t think about before they initially say yes to the military? The screening process. Recruits will be asked screening questions that include some variation of the following:

    “Have you ever been charged, arrested, cited, or held for any criminal offense?” Some versions of this may omit things like traffic stops for moving violations (non-alcohol related) or other minor offenses. Be prepared for this screening process and know that a background check will be performed to make sure you have no outstanding criminal warrants, criminal record, pending proceedings against you, etc.

    Applicants should know that financial responsibility is a prime concern in the military–if you have outstanding unpaid financial obligations ESPECIALLY in areas of child support, alimony, or other issues you will want to start resolving those immediately and before your background check begins for best results.

    The background check and other procedures leading up to the presentation of your enlistment contract will take a bit of time–if you are in a hurry to join, ask the recruiter about your options to ship out quickly or vice-versa if you feel you need extra time before boot camp.

    Also, when your military contract is ready, carefully read and review it and make certain ALL details are correct including the following:

    • Correct spelling of your full name
    • Correct address (this is VERY important)
    • Correct mention of your home of record or port of entry
    • Correct representation of the length of the military commitment you are agreeing to
    • Correct departure dates and other information where applicable
    • Make sure ANY bonuses or other perks promised to you are reflected in your contract

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team